The Future of the Mideast: A decentralized, Networked Pan-Arabism transcending Sykes-Picot?

By Parag Khanna | (Informed Comment) | – –

While embedded with U.S. Special Operations Forces in 2007, I witnessed firsthand America’s incredible ability to apply technology to the battlefield. The digital map layered on Iraq’s topography was rich with satellite feeds, drone surveillance, heat maps of local violence, real-time situation reports from troops on the ground, and other forms of human and signals intelligence. With about two hours’ notice, special ops teams could strike anywhere in the country. During the so-called surge, the “op tempo” was relentless, and yet the coalition’s ability to hold Iraq together was fleeting at best. One cool and cloudy night, while walking around Balad Air Base northwest of Baghdad with a senior commander, I asked him point- blank, “Are all these gizmos necessary because you can’t speak Arabic?”

Political goals imposed on a complex cultural geography from halfway around the world stand little chance of surviving even a year. And the post-colonial map of the Middle East has lasted not even a century, and in many cases not even half that. Now it is time for the Arab world to build a new map for itself, to evolve from Sykes Picot towards a Pax Arabia.

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Credit: Jeff Blossom

The disintegration of major Arab states from Libya to Syria and Iraq is an invitation to rethink the principal lines that define the Middle East’s geography. With hundreds of thousands of casualties from the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, and neighboring states such as Lebanon and Jordan pulled into the vortex, the current Arab convulsions have been likened to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. Arabs are now more concerned with their internal stability than external threats, and establishing their next map may take several decades. Indeed, Libya, Syria, and Iraq are still so chaotic that the future is hard to discern. But given the experience the Arab world already has with Islamic caliphates, foreign colonization, imperial suzerainty, insecure statehood, fitful pan-Arabism, tragic civil wars, and now widespread state collapse, it would be wise to learn from the past rather than repeat it.

The Arab world is ripe for reorganization. Rather than the futile pursuit of artificial national pillars under corrupt strongmen, the region must recover its historical cartography of internal connectivity. So dire is the decay of the region’s postcolonial system that even many Arabs-— not just Turks-— speak yearningly of the Ottoman Empire. A similar paradigm for the future would consciously build such fluid connectivity among urban oases to collectively enrich the region. Recall that it was Phoenician city-states such as Tyre in present-day Lebanon that sent forth merchants and explorers to settle colonies on Aegean and Mediterranean islands such as Sicily, in southern Spain, and at Carthage in North Africa. Indeed, from Tunis and Beirut to Damascus and Baghdad, some of history’s most successful trading centers have been Arab cities, a reminder that the Arab world is almost entirely urbanized. Its natural map is that of commercially oriented city centers with ties to the European, Turkic, and Persian realms—a legacy far richer than what the past century has produced.

ISIL demonstrated how borderless the Arab world is by rapidly conjoining Syria’s Deir al-Zor and Iraq’s Anbar provinces into a rump “Syriraq,” with further ambitions to capture all of the historically amorphous Al-Sham (Greater Syria). The map of ISIS-held areas looks not like a two-dimensional patch but like an octopus of tentacles extending along the “jihad highways” it controls extending outward from its strongholds in Anbar province. Intelligence Agencies’ real-time plotting of satellite feeds of oil trucks and financial data on black-market oil sales capture the shifting of ISIL’s supply lines. We cannot know today whether Anbar will remain an ISIL stronghold, return to Iraqi control, become an annex of Saudi Arabia’s Northern Borders province—or whether ISIL will succeed in partitioning Saudi Arabia as well.

The space in between the region’s civilizational anchors—- non-Arab Turkey and Iran, Arab powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Egypt-— is now up for grabs. Iraqi nationalism is meaningless, and Syria is an artificial failed state. Given its sectarian diversity and rugged topography, it is destined to devolve further, with Damascus and Aleppo remaining autonomous commercial hubs. The Middle East, it has long been argued, is but a collection of “tribes with flags.” Today tribes such as the Kurds that have no state have far more meaningful nationalism than Jordanians or Lebanese who do. Indeed, tribal states that hold their ground such as Kurdistan and Israel are the anchors of the region’s future map.

The Humpty Dumpty states of the Arab world will not be put back together again: The region is on course for more devolution, but aggregation is still far away. Getting from the current apocalypse to a higher stage of Arab self-organization will therefore be a marathon.
Arab nations’ geologic characteristics are more important than their political ones: They are either oil rich, oil poor, water rich, or water poor. With water scarcity threatening the very survival of countries like Yemen and Jordan, Arabs and their neighbors must build more water canals, pipelines, and railways rather than military checkpoints. For example, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians all favor a Red Sea–Dead Sea canal running along the Israel-Jordan border to provide potable water and irrigation. (A canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea is also under study.)

In the 1940s, the Trans-Arabian Pipeline built by Standard Oil and Chevron was the world’s longest, stretching over twelve hundred kilometers from Abqaiq in eastern Saudi Arabia to Lebanon. Over the decades, it became a symbol of the Arab world’s own bickering and inability to cooperate as sovereign brothers, with Syria cut off over transit fee disagreements in the 1970s and Jordan in 1990 over its support for Iraq in the Gulf War. And yet today a new south-north pipeline from Saudi Arabia to a post-Assad Syria would be crucial to revive the northern Levant.

Turkey, meanwhile, could also become a far greater source of hydroelectric power and also infrastructure investment for Syria. Already Turkish construction companies have taken the lead in building up Kurdistan’s infrastructure and support Kurdish pipelines owing through Turkey to Ceyhan, from which oil is put on tankers and shipped to Europe as well as Israel’s port of Ashkelon despite Baghdad’s objections. Qatar, which on paper is the world’s richest country per capita, produces almost no food, while its three desalination plants provide only enough water reserves for a single day. As it buys up agricultural land across Jordan and Syria, it should also subsidize modern desalination plants and irrigation systems for them to boost food production. In all these ways, infrastructure connectivity creates the essential contiguity that political borders inhibit.

The space between the Mediterranean Sea and the Tigris River can still earn its place on the emerging Silk Roads between Europe and Asia. Arabs will need connectivity as a driver of long-term growth if for no other reason than that both the United States (already) and China (eventually) are diversifying away from Arab oil and gas supplies. They will have to become thriving urban hubs connecting and servicing all the continents on their periphery, including Africa. Westerners hesitate to draw any more maps (publicly, at least) for the region they so cravenly carved up last century, while the Arab regimes left standing are too busy manipulating local forces to put forth a collective long-term vision. But if Sykes-Picot has failed them and chaos is engulfing them, they must draw their own maps of Pax Arabia to have something to aspire to.

Parag Khanna is a CNN Global Contributor and the author of the new book CONNECTOGRAPHY: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization
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12 Responses

  1. The article is pleasant in principle but needs a road map to that future of pan-Arabism on several fronts: the reduction of divisive sectarianism, unity against Israeli/US disruption and foreign intervention.

    But historical precedents are lacking for unification without a common cause. Since WWII the common cause that unifies has usually been nationalism and communism, and has operated within ethnic national borders. How otherwise create a unity sufficiently militant to topple oligarchies? The group most likely to do that are the poor allied with some of the middle class, and they cannot do that when divided by sectarianism.

    Perhaps you can turn pan-Arabism against sectarian leaders, promote secular ideologies (Ghadafi and Baathism?) like socialism, and oppose all foreign alliances. Your best bet there would probably be alliance with Russia and China. The US is no more than an infectious disease of progress.

    • That is, oppose foreign alliances with powers that seek division and weakening for their own gain, such as the US and NATO countries. Seek alliance with those that have primarily foreign trade gains.

  2. Pan-Arabism? Nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire? These are hardly bets to place your chips on. The Pan-Arabism implicit in Nasser’s United Arab Republic (the union of Egypt and Syria) accomplished nothing, and it broke up after a short-lived existence.

    As to European colonialism in the heart of the Arab World and any nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans were imitators at best. As the West increased its knowledge in all spheres, the Ottoman world remained static. While the West continued to advance, the Arabs and all other Muslim subjects of the Ottomans were victims of an Islamic—not Western—empire’s bureaucracy, regulations, corruption, and consequent failure to modernize, leaving them ill-equipped to meet the Western challenge when it did come. Compared to the Ottoman legacy, the post-World War I British and French Mandates in the Near East were short-lived and hardly the impediment to development that they are often portrayed to be.

    It would be folly to place your bets on the Arab World coalescing and finding common cause in another Pan-Arab enterprise, this time writ large.

  3. William, first you should understand the difference between Pan-Arabism and nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. Second, I find your nostalgia for the French British Mandate in the Middle East very funny:)

    • I am well aware of the difference between pan-Arabism and nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire. It was Mr. Khanna, in his piece above, who wrote, “Arabs-— not just Turks-— speak yearningly of the Ottoman Empire.”

      I have no nostalgia for the British and French Mandates in the Near East. I was simply comparing their short-lived existence to the four centuries of Ottoman rule over the arabs.

  4. I understand the points made. There is another issue that will become increasingly problematic – global warming and its impact on the mid-east. Recent studies show that most of the mid-east will not be habitable. So, in the medium term, it will all be for naught. Except for a few biospheres here and there.

  5. I agree that the Arabs must be left alone to create their own state. At the end of WWI they already had the elements of a regional state with specific borders in place. In trade for agreeing to join the British against their Ottoman rulers the British agreed to assist them with financing, infrastructure and administrative advice after the war. Key to continued trading success was the Mediterrean coast. Sadly, with Sykes-Picot and subsequent British governments the Zionists were given preference and the Arabs were betrayed. In the 1980s Israel developed a plan, later embraced by the neocons to ‘re-make the Middle East’ by fomenting sectarian violence to keep the Arabs weak so the US could control resources and Israel could be safe to expand its control. Arabs would be divided into small weak states. There is already talk of “federalizing” Syria. The plan is already starting to back-fire. To stop the violence (assuming the west wants to) the first requirement is for Israel to grant full equality to the Palestinians and form a single Arab/Israeli state. If that state were to recognize itself as part of the larger Arab region, peace and re-establishment of the original post-Ottoman state would happen more quickly than Mr. Khanna envisions. Pie-in-the-sky? I wouldn’t be too sure – it could happen.

  6. I agree that the Arabs must be left alone to create their own state. At the end of WWI they already had the elements of a regional state with specific borders in place. In trade for agreeing to join the British against their Ottoman rulers the British agreed to assist them with financing, infrastructure and administrative advice after the war. Key to continued trading success was the Mediterrean coast. Sadly, with Sykes-Picot and subsequent British governments the Zionists were given preference and the Arabs were betrayed and lost the coast to boot. In the 1980s Israel developed a plan, later embraced by the neocons to ‘re-make the Middle East’ by fomenting sectarian violence to keep the Arabs weak so the US could control resources and Israel could be safe to expand its control. Arabs would be divided into small weak states. There is already talk of “federalizing” Syria. The plan is already starting to back-fire. To stop the violence (assuming the west wants to) the first requirement is for Israel to grant full equality to the Palestinians and form a single Arab/Israeli state. If that state were to recognize itself as part of the larger Arab region, peace and re-establishment of the original post-Ottoman state would happen more quickly than Mr. Khanna envisions. Pie-in-the-sky? I wouldn’t be too sure – it could happen. We just need to let them alone to do it.

  7. Here is an alternative view of what is really happening in the Middle East.

    There are three ideas which define and defined the Middle East and each of these three has two conflicting ideas within it designed to keep the region destabilized:1. Zionism/Pan-Zionism: Jewish and Christian Zionism. It was the inspiration behind both modern Zionism which led to the forming of the Jewish State in 1948 through terrorism against the British Mandate as well as Britian and France’s Sykes Pikot betrayal/agreement and the Balfour Declaration. The British Parliament, not monarchy, and the French republic advocate belief in Anglo-Israelism and Franco-Israelism. Christian-Zionism is the dominant political view in Western democracies due to Christian dispensationalism theology , while Jewish-Zionism the trend in the Jewish State.

    Both groups envision a unique pan-Zionist state under their individual Messiahs (Jesus and the Jewish Messiah) in the Middle East and seek to erase Arab presence totally from the Middle East as they did to the Native Americans in North America. The West’s blind support for Israel fueled by dispensationalism theology of its own suited radical ‘Christian-Mullahs’, America’s historic demonization of Arabs in Hollywood, continued Gulf Wars and now open arming of terrorists demonstrates this clearly.

    Both groups advocate a misappropriated and corrupted/racist form of the Arab polygenism (multiple Adams) philosophy of Ibn Wahshiyya and yet ironically do not believe Arabs are Adamic peoples. They accordingly refer to Arabs as “Savages” in their media as they did in the past with other groups and even when sending aid to Syria, perfer Kurds to Arabs.

    Jewish Zionists hate Jesus and are vehemently anti-Christ while the Christian Zionists are vehemently anti-Semitic, hence the migration of Ashkenazi European Jews to the Arab Middle East

    2. Pan-Islamism: This technically began with the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyad kings with the aid of non-Arab Islamic mercenaries from Khorasan. It developed during the Abbasid era with the evolution of various schools of Fiqh etc., and evolved with the rise of the Ottoman Turks and Ayyubids. Other post-Ottoman and post-Ayyubid forms of pan-Islamism grew into terrorist and other movements like the Ikhwan and Al Qaeda and Daesh.

    There are both Shia and Sunni versions of this ideology. Today, Iran leads the Shia pan-Islamism front while Pakistan (Afghan war time, Taliban connection/shelter to Al Qaeda etc.,) and more so Turkey under Erdogan now lead the Sunni republic front. The Turks under Erdogan are now infamous for supporting Daesh, and the Muslim Brotherhood among others, but the real leader of pan-Islamism among the Sunni Arabs is infact none other than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Sauds did not subscribe to the idea of pan-Arabism, instead they made an agreement with the Ikhwan of Najd, adopted Wahhabism, and have spread pan-Islamism globally since their founding.

    The Kharijites were the first pan-Islamists.

    The Deobandis and the Pakistanis became allies with the pan-Islamist Sauds in the past in the East for this agenda. The Pakistanis adopted pan-Islamism after ending their monarchy in 1956 and becoming an “Islamic Republic”, while the pioneers of the Deobandi movement fully merged with pan-Islamism after the complete political and cultural abolishment of the Mughal Empire by the British Raj. Now, even most Sufi minded ulema have turned to pan-Islamism, only with a different interpretation of the faith. Pan-Islamism is no longer exclusive to the Deobandi and neo-Wahhabi Sunnis, rather even Sufi minded Sunni religious leaders have also adopted it, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

    Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Sauds started trying to distance themselves from pan-Islamism. However, if the kingdom divorces pan-Islamism, without Arabism, the kingdom is without direction, as we are seeing in its Yemen conflict, and the unwillingness of Saudi soldiers to sacrifice their lives for the House of Saud and not pan-Islamism, could ideologically collapse the kingdom, or make it ripe for the US Christian-Zionist backed, destabalizing ‘Arab Spring’ pro-democracy movements like in other Arab countries of recent

    3. Pan-Arabism: Technically part of the Prophetic mission and rise of the religion Islam itself, given the first Muslims and first members of the “Ummah” or nation (“Khayra Ummatin”) were the Children of Ishmael, or Arabs. Early Islam was predicated upon the central idea that the Covenant of Abraham was fulfilled in Ishmael and his descendants the Arabs, the nobles from among whom were the Lords of the Quraysh (Sadaat Quraysh), who would later claim divine right at the Saqifah. Individual conversions among the first generation like that of Bilal the Ethiopian or Salman the Persian cannot be counted as a nation for obvious reasons. With the end of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258, and the rise of the non-Arab Turks who created the Ottoman Empire and claimed the caliphate in 1519, pan-Arabism was replaced by pan-Islamism.

    With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1924, Sharif Hussein revived pan-Arabism and established a pan-Arab caliphate, one borderless Arab kingdom, which included Makkah, Madinah, the entire Hejaz, Al Aqsa, Syria, Lebanon, and all of the holy sites in Najaf, Karbala, Kazimiyya, Askariyya, Baghdad, and the whole of Iraq, all united under one descendant of the Prophet, who was also the declared King of the Arabs and Caliph. The British and French Christian Zionists deemed Sharif Hussein a greater threat than the Jewish-Zionist terrorists who wanted a Jewish State and were attacking the British Mandate witb terrorism, so they sided with the Jewish Zionists, gave them a State, and financed and armed the House of Saud and their Wahhabi pan-Islamism forces to drive out the Sharif who refused to spill Arab blood. Following this, the pan-Arab kingdom vision of Sharif Hussein was lost in history. Sharif Hussein’s pan-Arabism was based on a model of a religiously backed monarchy and Arab caliphate.

    In order to further erase from the memory of the Arabs the lure of Sharif Hussein’s idea, Russian communists gradually entered the Middle East. A new breed of communist backed pan-Arabism was created, which disregarded Islam, culture, monarchy and the caliphate all together. The leaders of this version of Arab nationalism were all dictators. Nasser of Egypt, Saddam Hussein and his predecessors of Iraq, Qaddafi of Libya, and the leaders of most non-monarchy Arab republics come into this category. Their actions and disregard of Arab religious sentiment resulted in the unprecedented and phenomenal rise of pan-Islamism in the region.

  8. This rise in support for pan-Islamism is a result of the Arab desire to see the caliphate restored. However given the almost 80 years of ideological repression, they are turning to Islamists and terrorists who exploit this legitimate aspiration instead of turning to a monarch. The caliphate for both Sunnis and Shias remained a heriditary dynastic monarchy from the era of the fourth Rashidun Caliph onwards with the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids and Ottomans. The Sunni aspirations for a Arab dynastic caliphate to be restored as per Sharif Hussein’s vision should not be opposed. If Catholics can have Vatican City as an absolute monarchy and the Pope as an absolute monarch leading the global Catholic community, even the Kennedys, the Arabs can have a caliph and borderless kingdom as envisioned by Sharif Hussein.

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